Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Brass Player's Story


(This term was first used by my high school students when they presented me with books of “Roccoisms” on several occasions.)

“There is no reason for your success or failure other than your,
‘State of Mind’.”

“Sound Motivates Function.”


1. First Failure!

In 1959, at the age of ten, I came home from school one day carrying a trombone. I was instructed by the band director to learn how to play by finding find a private trombone teacher. Of course I wasn’t going to wait until then to produce my first sounds. On my own, I figured out how to assemble the bell and slide and to place the mouthpiece in the leadpipe. However, that was as far as I could go without someone’s help.

After mindlessly blowing air into the mouthpiece with no resulting trombone sound, I decided that I needed to blow air and simultaneously move the slide. Nothing! My first disappointment as a brass player! Yes, I needed to find a trombone teacher.

2. The Trombone Teacher - My first and only lesson! The second disappointment!

I remember that the half hour lesson cost $1.50. I was a poor kid with no parents so $1.50 was a lot of money. The lesson was a waste of time and money. I would have been better off figuring it out by myself. I remember Jake once saying, “I was a pretty good brass player until I found my first teacher.”

After showing me how to assemble and hold the instrument, he proceeded to talk about blowing air and to create various levels of tension and relaxation in my lips. He wanted me to play fourth line F. Disaster! Where was the sound of F? Nowhere!

I must have spent ten very frustrating minutes trying to figure out what he wanted me to do. I only thought about my lips and blowing. He didn't provide me with any awareness of the sound he wanted me to produce. I don’t remember if I cried but I do remember my severe anxiety and disappointment I felt disappointment with myself because I could not play the F. I also noticed the teacher’s frustration which made me feel even worse.

Eventually, the air column of the instrument did resonate an F but it was only by chance. I had no idea why it happened. The lesson was such an emotionally painful experience that I never had another one. Unfortunately, I blamed myself for the failure, not the teacher.

My experience would have been different if he had sung the note or better, if he played it on his trombone. He should have said little or nothing about air and lips.


"Paralysis by Analysis"

I spent the next four years of my life trying to figure out what he wanted me to do with my lip tension and air flow. My elementary school band director soon moved me to the baritone horn, and eventually the tuba. He hoped to find some instrument that would bring me success. The next stop would have been the bass drum but I gave up playing in the band before that happened.

I went on to high school without continuing in music. Four years of disappointment and low self esteem were enough! I loved music but playing a brass instrument wasn't an enjoyable experience.


"A history of success creates an expectation of success. A history of failure creates an expectation of failure. Expectations always become reality."


"I expect the notes to be there."

3. The High School Band

One day at the start of my freshman year in high school, a friend excitedly proclaimed that he had joined the beginning band and was learning to play the French horn. I replied, “I used to play the tuba”.

It wasn’t long before he told the band director about me and I was back in music. He needed another tuba player in the band. Much to the chagrin of the other tuba players, he presented me with a brand new instrument that was kept hidden in a storage cabinet. I still couldn’t play very well but I was thrilled to have a shiny new instrument.

Interestingly, my band director was Rudy Macciocchi, a very fine professional hornist, who was on first call as an extra player with the Chicago Symphony. A daughter of the great Frank Brouk, hornist of the CSO, was a member of the band. Frank was the former principal horn of the Cleveland Orchestra and at one time or another, played every chair in the CSO.

His daughter and I became friends. She frequently invited me to attend CSO concerts when she could get free tickets in the gallery of Orchestra Hall. This was the early 1960’s before several later renovations tarnished the wonderful acoustics as heard on the Fritz Reiner-CSO recordings.

The glorious sound of the brass projected powerfully to the gallery. Jake’s bell pointed directly to where I sat. The sound was incredible! It seemed like he could lift the orchestra off the stage with the power of his tone. The impression he and the orchestra made changed my life. In my personal practice, I tried to imitate his sound with my tuba. Gradually, I sounded more and more like him. I soon discovered that I actually could play a brass instrument.

4. The First Lesson with Jake.

(Everyone called him Jake but I later learned from Brian Fredrickson that he preferred to be called Arnold.)

During the next three years of high school, I gradually achieved success as a tuba player, playing in the ALL-City High School Band in Chicago, and eventually in the Youth Orchestra of Greater Chicago. I had a few lessons with John Taylor before he left Chicago to eventually become a tubist with the Army Band in DC. However, my progress was mainly the result of imitating Jake’s sound on a daily basis.

At the end of my junior year, Frank Brouk asked me what I wanted to do as a career. I didn’t know if I wanted a career in music. However, I did know that I wanted a lesson with Mr. Jacobs. Frank and his wife relentlessly bugged Jake about me until I finally received word to call him. I’m sure he only agreed to see me because he wanted them to stop bugging him.

I had to call him several times over the summer of 1966. Each time I called he would say, “Rocco who?” I had to remind him about me several times before I finally had an appointment in September 1966. I was a 17 year old high school student at the start of my senior year.

At the conclusion of the lesson, he made an extraordinary commitment to me. He said, “I’m going to put you in the Civic Orchestra, training orchestra of the CSO, and give you a full scholarship to study with me.” He said, “Here is the reason why.”


At the time, I didn’t understand the importance of that statement. Yes, I had already been studying with him for three years. There was a fantastic lesson every time I sat in the gallery of Orchestra Hall!

5. The Career

Jake opened all the doors of opportunity for me. I first played with the CSO at the age of 18 while I was still in high school. He gave me all his recording studio work. I was his assistant in the CSO for six years and was on first call with the Grant Park Symphony. I regularly played with several brass quintets and assorted ensembles. He once told me, “You are starting out at the top of the profession.”
I consider my membership in the Chicago Symphony Alumni Association to be one of my most cherished achievements.

In 1973, Jake said he wanted to give someone else the opportunity that I had for so many years. I knew it was time to find a gig outside Chicago. In 1973, there were several openings for tuba around the country. I won a job with the Honolulu Symphony. Two years later, I won a one year position with the Seattle Symphony.

Coming from Chicago and the CSO, I wasn’t pleased with the performance standards of the HSO. Seattle was a much different musical environment. I loved playing there but I knew the job was only temporary. I was determined to work very hard to win another orchestra job after Seattle.

6. The Crash!

Early in my first HSO season, I noticed that I was beginning to lose my “Chicago” sound. I sounded less and less like a player who sat in the CSO brass section and more and more like some of the very insecure brass players I heard around me. I also began to notice the physical symptoms of failure. My “chops” didn’t feel right. I was no longer taking in large breaths and my tongue wasn’t functioning. I started missing easy notes and became increasingly paralyzed. This was especially true of starting notes. I complained about my symptoms to the other brass players but they didn’t know what I was experiencing physically. I could still play well enough to function professionally but I was becoming less and less secure.

As time went on, I tried to correct my symptoms of failure. I did breathing and tonguing exercises, and studied my embouchure in a mirror. My playing didn’t improve, it got worse. By the time I left Seattle in 1976, I was almost completely paralyzed with a horn in my hands. The darkest day of my career was the day before the first rehearsal of “The Ring”. I was forced to call the conductor to tell him that I couldn’t play the "Cycle". I was sending a substitute, friend Ron Munson.

My playing career was over at age 27! The only thing I could do was to come back home to Chicago. I was totally devastated! However, it wasn’t long before the dark clouds opened up and the beautiful sun came shinning through.

7. The Epiphany

My wife flew back to Chicago while I drove our car with my instruments and other belongings. It’s a three and a half day drive. There was a tuba mouthpiece on the passenger’s seat of the car. Curiously, I noticed that there were no problems with my chops, tongue, or air when I buzzed on the mouthpiece alone. I could play anything I wanted with a full resonant sound. There was absolutely no paralysis!

I was deeply perplexed by the apparent difference in my ability to play the mouthpiece inside vs. outside the horn. I decided that when I arrived in Chicago I would pretend that the tuba didn’t exist.

I inserted the mouthpiece into the leadpipe and played it the same way I did when it was in my hand. Bingo! For the first time in several months, I could produce a reasonably good sound with a tuba in my hands. The experience gave me the possibility for recovery. It was the opportunity that I was searching for. The implications of that moment greatly influenced my understanding of how to create success and what caused failure within myself and ultimately, my students.

I was young and determined enough to find the answers to why and how this level of failure could occur. I wasn’t out of the woods yet but I could see the sun shining though the leaves. That day was my personal liberation from searching for the “holy brass grail”. I knew the path that I needed to follow.

I have since referred to it as, “The Yellow Brick Road”.

8. The Teacher

My epiphany was only the beginning of the recovery process that has been ongoing for 35 years. Actually, once this level of paralysis (dystonia) has been experienced, a player (on any instrument) can never be truly “out of the woods” again.

All life experiences, positive or negative, are stored in the memory of the brain forever. While a person is alive and functioning normally, stored information cannot not be deleted like a computer file.


“We cannot erase bad habits. They must be replaced with good ones.”

In 1976, my professional playing career was temporarily over. I had to make a living so I decided to start a teaching career in order to continue in music. I’ll always be thankful to my wife, Karen and friends who helped me professionally and financially. Without their support, I would not have been able to continue my personal recovery and I would not have had the opportunity to help others.

I pursued a true understanding of Jake’s teaching. Although, I had studied with him for over seven years. Only his personal lawyer, a horn player, had spent more time in his studio. However, I didn’t fully comprehend his teaching.

Yes, he worked his magic, inspiring me to play very well in his basement studio on South Normal Avenue in Chicago. I never really understood the how and why of my success or failure.

I have always contended that if you didn’t have your lessons at his home, you were deprived of the complete Jacobs experience. The downtown studio was not the same environment. Most people who did go to his home for lessons agree with my observation. The basement studio was an incredible place! There was a steady stream of the finest brass players in the world who would come to his South side home. He frequently sent me upstairs to let them in. I was thrilled!

I began listening to recordings of his lectures and attended many of his masterclasses. We have Brian Fredrickson, his assistant for twenty years, to thank for recording these events. Brian and I were very close to Jake personally. He was our father figure so it’s only natural that today, I consider Brian to be my brother. Many of Jake’s recorded lectures are accessible at Brian’s website,

As I revisited his words, my understanding of his teaching grew to new levels. First, I applied this new understanding to myself. I began to comprehend the how and why of my personal success and failure as brass player. My recovery process accelerated. Within two years, I was performing professionally again.

I have been on the faculty of fifteen colleges and universities, both adjunct and full time positions, teaching applied low brass, brass pedagogy, and instrumental performance. I have also published numerous articles on brass pedagogy and instrumental performance for The Instrumentalist magazine. Since 1992, I have taught instrumental music at Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School in Chicago.

As I began to apply Jake’s concepts to my students, I saw the same positive results in them that I was experiencing. I have never seen failure in any student that I had not experienced myself. This has given me a distinct advantage when diagnosing a student's playing problems. I know what's going on in them within seconds of their first notes. It's like looking in a mirror and seeing myself.

Interestingly, the success that I saw in my brass students was achieved equally on all instruments, not just the brass. There is an extensive article, published in The Instrumentalist magazine (November, 2005) about how I successfully apply these concepts to string and woodwind players as well.


“Failure is an opportunity to learn how to succeed.”

“I have always learned much more from my failures than my successes.”

“We can convert poor sounds into good sounds. We cannot convert silence into good sound.”

“If you want to truly understand what I’m teaching you, teach it to someone else.”


“To teach is to learn twice.”

In 1979, I began teaching at Vandercook College of Music in Chicago. VCM is one of the finest schools of music education in the country. I viewed teaching there as a powerful opportunity to influence brass pedagogy within the educational system.

Since I was a product of that system, I understood its shortcomings. I also had the unique opportunity of experiencing the highest levels of brass performance in the world, playing in the brass section of the CSO.

I knew that the educational system did not comprehend what the players in the CSO were doing to achieve that level of performance. Neither Arnold Jacobs or any of his colleagues were teaching brass pedagogical methods to music education students at VCM or anywhere else. I saw a unique opportunity to bring the two worlds together. The environments of the stage of Orchestra Hall and the elementary or high school classroom have more in common than they are different.

The information presented here is the result of forty years of teaching my most important student (myself) and the countless others who have shared the joy of this knowledge and experience. I won't allow this knowledge to become a lost art.

It is offered freely for all who have interest. I sincerely thank all my students for the opportunity to learn from them!

It is not necessary for anyone to go through life as a “suffering” brass player.


  1. Mr. Rocco has given me a gift that I could never repay. Even though I am no longer making my living in music the lessons that he provided me have allowed me to experience wonderful musical moments that most never have the opportunity to take part in. When I first came to him the chance of ever performing at a high level just did not exist for me; all I wanted was to get a music Ed degree and had no thoughts of becoming a great performer. He changed that and gave me the key to producing wonderful sounds and a true love of music. In my current career his lessons in life and success serve me and others that I coach and train every day. His story reminds me of all the hours spent in his studio at VanderCook and in his basement in LaGrange Park listening to Roccoisms and wonderful sounds while becoming a better musician from both; much as he had experienced with Mr. Jacobs. I am blessed to have Roger Rocco as my teacher, mentor, friend, and my musical father. Thank you Mr. Rocco for posting this story and more importantly for all of the gifts you have shared with me and your other students. We are all better human beings not just musicians for having you in our lives.
    Ian Robinson

  2. Thanks for your inspiring bio. I love your Roccoisms!

    I'm a trumpet player, private teacher and software developer.

    I want to let you know about some iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad apps for trumpet/french horn/trombone players. I believe these apps can help with finger and slide positions as well as helping the student learn scales and chords. They are only meant to supplement practice and are NOT a SUBSTITUTE for actual practice. I envision it helping the brass playing student when the instrument is not available or when waiting in line for the bus, etc. It's actually fun as the student is scored for accuracy and speed and can share his results with others.

    The apps and video tutorials are available on the following sites: